My Survival as an Aboriginal: Lessons on survival

My Survival as an Aboriginal: Lessons on survival
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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Essie Coffey gives the children lessons on how to survive in the bush. She shows them different sorts of fruits and trees. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

The power of Essie Coffey and her command over the young people is evident, and it is Essie Coffey’s passion for cultural knowledge and what it offers can be recognised as a driving force in this documentary.


My Survival as an Aboriginal synopsis

A documentary about Indigenous woman Essie Coffey and her life in the township of Brewarrina, or Dodge City, as it is also known.


My Survival as an Aboriginal curator's notes

Essie Coffey (1941-1998) was a Muruwari woman born near Goodooga, NSW. She was the co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and an inaugural member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Essie Coffey’s passion for her culture and her stoic dedication to her people is tangible in this film. As a charismatic, dedicated woman, she invites the audience into her community. And while she brings to the fore the hardships endured by her community, she is continually focused on the power and richness of traditional knowledge and skills, and the power of her cultural connection to land. In this, Coffey not only raises issues of the impact of colonisation on Indigenous peoples, but also offers a solution by way of continuing cultural practice.

Essie Coffey gives a personal account of what happened to her people in Brewarrina and her personal opinions on why her people are caught in a struggle. The opening sequence of My Survival as an Aboriginal is challenging as it delivers a litany of atrocities and hardships committed against Aboriginal people. The producer of My Survival as an Aboriginal, Martha Ansara, has said that the film was 'a passionate outcry … a voice of repressed truth’, and the film is still current within the contemporary Australian society. The ongoing issues of colonialism and dispossession raised by Coffey continue to affect Indigenous peoples today. My Survival as an Aboriginal, though a call to justice, is also tempered with beauty, and the audience is allowed to glimpse the private world of Essie Coffey and the people of Brewarrina. Coffey is very strong in her fight for justice, and equally committed to ensuring that the next generation are taught cultural knowledge as a means of ensuring an identity invested in the ongoing relationship to land.

My Survival as an Aboriginal was directed by Essie Coffey and is a collaboration with non-Indigenous filmmaker Martha Ansara. It was one of the first Australian films where an Indigenous Australian was directly involved in deciding how she and her community would be represented, and is also the first documentary directed by an Indigenous woman.

Essie Coffey also appeared in My Life as I Live It (1993) and gave a copy of My Survival as an Aboriginal to Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of Australia’s new Parliament House in 1988. Essie Coffey is a voice that reaches across time, and she continues to be a larger than life contributor in the ongoing fight for the rights for Indigenous peoples. See also Big Girls Don’t Cry.

This program has also screened on NITV, National Indigenous Television.

Notes by Romaine Moreton


Education notes

This clip shows Muruwari woman Essie Coffey at Brewarrina in western New South Wales teaching a group of Indigenous children about surviving in the bush. She tells the children that they can always find something to eat in the bush and shows them how to determine if the fruit of a particular tree is ripe. Coffey then takes the group to a particular type of eucalypt and explains that they can quench their thirst by chewing the leaves or twigs.

Educational value points

  • In the clip Essie Coffey works with young people to identify and use plants that can provide sustenance in the bush. Coffey teaches the children by walking with them through the bush, asking them to identify a fruiting tree and then showing them how to identify the ripe fruit from the under- and overripe fruit, and how to extract moisture from the leaves of a particular eucalypt. In this way, through observation, imitation and listening, children learn traditional skills such as hunting, gathering and tracking.
  • Women such as Coffey have an extensive knowledge of their environment including what can be eaten, when to collect particular foods and how to prepare foods. In many parts of Australia seasonal fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are important sources of food and medicine for local Indigenous people.
  • Coffey’s lesson to the children is a way of imparting cultural knowledge and a strong sense of pride and identity as Indigenous Australians. When Coffey was a child her family had moved around the country to avoid being placed on an Aboriginal reserve. Coffey said that this early experience strengthened her resolve to pass on her cultural knowledge to young Indigenous people.
  • The clip is an example of an observational style of documentary filmmaking. The observational sequences have no voice-over commentary, intertitles or interviews, but rather present an unobtrusive observation of the everyday life of the subjects. The filmmaker leaves it to the viewer to determine the significance of what is said and done, but it could be argued that the filmmaker manipulates the story through dextrous editing and choice of camera angles and shots.
  • Coffey (1940–98) was a Muruwari woman born near Goodooga, NSW. In the mid-1950s she married and settled on an Aboriginal reserve at Brewarrina in western NSW where she co-founded the Brewarrina Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Museum and the Western Aboriginal Legal Service. Coffey served on government bodies such as the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1998 for service to the Aboriginal community.
  • My Survival as an Aboriginal, which Coffey made in collaboration with non-Indigenous filmmaker Martha Ansara, was the first documentary directed by an Indigenous woman. It was also one of the first Australian films in which an Indigenous Australian was directly involved in deciding how she and her community would be represented rather than having their story mediated through a non-Indigenous filmmaker.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Goodgaban Productions
Martha Ansara, Alec Morgan, Kimble Rendall, Rosalie Higson, Kit Guyatt, Annmarie Chandler, Essie Coffey
Essie Coffey